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Why the stubborn, resilient Max Duggan is the perfect leader for TCU’s comeback kings

THE LEGEND OF Max Duggan, the stubborn overachiever who began the regular season as a backup quarterback and ended it as the Heisman Trophy runner-up leading TCU to a College Football Playoff berth, was born on the Fourth of July back in Iowa.

Jim Duggan, Max’s dad and former high school football coach in Council Bluffs, recalls first seeing his son’s stubborn resistance to losing during an annual family rite of passage, a water fight in which all the Duggans would use whatever means necessary to drench their opponents.

“It’s hoses and it’s water guns and it’s balloons,” Jim said on Thursday morning from Arizona, thinking back to where he first saw his son’s never-say-die attitude take shape. “It’s buckets of ice water. It’s adults climbing up on grandma and grandpa’s roof, hiding and then blasting the kids with a garden hose. It was all well water, and that well water comes out of ground ice cold. It’s a shock to the body. Kids are slipping and falling down in the yard. It was just a good old-fashioned water fight and it lasted for 45 minutes. It was just a tradition at the Duggan Fourth of July parties.”

There was only one rule in determining the winner: You cry, and you’re out.

“He would be 3, 4, 5 years old and would always be one of the last survivors because you could do just about anything to him and he wouldn’t cry, he wouldn’t come out of that water fight for anything,” Jim said. “He always battled. That was kind of the early sign that this kid’s a little bit different.”

In his four years at TCU, Max Duggan has stayed in the fight. He overcame the discovery and subsequent nine-hour surgery to correct a heart condition known as Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, where an extra electrical pathway caused a rapid heartbeat. He overcame a subsequent emergency surgery for a blood clot from the procedure. The TCU coach he bonded with in recruiting, offensive coordinator Sonny Cumbie, left. The coach who signed him, Gary Patterson, parted ways with the school, and the new coach, Sonny Dykes, handed Duggan’s starting job to his backup, Chandler Morris.

But even Morris, who was injured in this year’s season opener against Colorado, watched Duggan reclaim the job and lead the Big 12 in passing yards (3,321) and passing TDs (30), learning the same lesson opponents did. You can’t keep Duggan down.

“He’s just kind of like a cockroach,” Morris said. “You can’t kill him. That’s how I see Max. He’s going to get right back up and he’s going to keep going.”

After 41 starts and a season that will be commemorated in TCU history, Duggan gets his chance as giant slayer on Saturday when No. 3 TCU faces No. 2 Michigan in the College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Vrbo Fiesta Bowl (4 p.m. ET, ESPN). If there’s anything we’ve learned this season, and apparently all the way back to his childhood in Iowa, it’s not to count Max Duggan out.

TCU LOST ONE game this season, a 31-28 overtime loss to Kansas State in the Big 12 championship game. Duggan had a subpar first half by this season’s standards, then rallied the Horned Frogs from an 11-point fourth-quarter deficit, rushing for 95 yards on an 80-yard drive, collapsing in exhaustion after scoring the touchdown, before throwing the game-tying 2-point conversion with 1:51 left in the game.

After Kansas State held TCU scoreless in overtime and kicked the game-winning field goal, Duggan sat at his locker for 45 minutes in full uniform, by himself. An hour after the game ended, Duggan came into the news conference, still unable to get through the heartbreak of coming up just inches short of scoring a touchdown on an overtime drive, ending his hopes of bringing a Big 12 title to Fort Worth.

The kid who never cried was red-eyed and bleary, with tears flowing as he claimed responsibility for the loss. After 18 losses in his first three years at TCU, this one broke him.

“Just in the moment, it was a real emotion that was coming out,” Duggan said this week. “I’ve been here for four years and there’s been so many ups and downs and failures and success. You want to do everything you can to make them proud, and you get so close to a league championship and then you fall short. You feel bad for the guys in the locker room, the staff and the university because it means so much to them. As a quarterback, you feel responsible, kind of the guy in charge.”

The clips from that news conference have continued to haunt TCU coaches and players. It’s almost unfair that it will be a signature memory of one of the greatest seasons in TCU football history.

“Man, it makes me, and us, hurt even more,” offensive coordinator Garrett Riley said. “He’s not usually an emotional person. I think that’s what really struck a chord for a lot of people to see a guy like him in that moment.”

As TCU prepares for Michigan, the images have served as a motivational factor, especially for Duggan’s offensive linemen, who don’t want to see their leader in pain.

“We’re the position that’s supposed to be taking the beating for him,” said tackle Andrew Coker, who has started every game for the past two years. “Whenever you see that come out of your quarterback, you want to pick the guy up, you want to keep him off the ground. You want to adopt his attitude.”

Linebacker Johnny Hodges joked on Wednesday that it was the first time he’d seen Duggan not excel at something.

“I saw him after he lost one game this year and he didn’t look great,” Hodges said on Wednesday. “He’s not a good crier.”

But then again, he hasn’t had much practice.

TCU WILL GO into Saturday’s game as a 7.5-point underdog according to Caesar’s Sportsbook. But given that the Frogs had 200-1 odds to win the national championship entering the season, the longest odds of any team to ever reach the CFP, they’ll take it.

So many things have had to go right for Duggan to be here. But some had to go wrong, too.

After Dykes named Morris the starter, Duggan vowed to stick around and be the best backup he could be. He came to TCU, he said, because he wanted to go somewhere he’d enjoy even if he was just a regular student and not a football player. TCU, in a metropolitan area, appealed to him. So, he was willing to see it through.

Then Morris sprained his knee in the second half against Colorado, and Duggan started thriving. The next week, Duggan completed 23 of 29 passes and set career highs in yards (390) and TD passes (5) in a 59-17 win over Tarleton. But Riley admits he still wasn’t quite sure about Duggan until the next week, in a 42-34 win over SMU in Dallas. Of course, in two previous seasons before arriving at TCU, Riley was on the SMU sidelines as the Mustangs beat Duggan and the Frogs both times.

“He really made some plays in the passing game in the first half where I was like, ‘OK, that’s a little bit better than I saw it in terms of what he could do,'” Riley said. “There are some times where he totally just stood in the pocket and moved on to his fourth read and delivered a strike. I was like, ‘Oh s—, that’s a lot better than I probably would have guessed.’ And then, he duplicated some of those things the very next week against Oklahoma. I thought there was something pretty pretty special here.”

And then came the comebacks. TCU went 5-1 this year when it trailed in the second half. And Duggan led the FBS with 10.3 yards per attempt when he was under pressure.

Riley said the most dramatic improvement has been on deep passes. On passes thrown 20 or more yards downfield, Duggan has the best completion percentage in the country (50%), with 12 touchdowns, tied for the most in the FBS. He has 13 completions of 50 or more yards this season, which is also tops nationally.

“He got a bad rap for hitting deep balls,” Riley said. “That was kind of a big thing coming in. Now deep balls are probably his No. 1 strength. So it’s not like I came in here and had this whole equation of, ‘Hey, this is how we’re gonna hit those.’ We just do it.”

Dykes got emotional after the SMU game talking about how Duggan responded to all the changes and doubts, saying he would hope his son would handle them as well. He said Duggan has still never questioned the decision.

“I’m sure plenty of times he wanted to say, ‘What were you thinking, moron?'” Dykes said. “That’s what I’ve wanted to say to a lot of people. Part of being a quarterback and being a head coach is you don’t say things you think sometimes. So I think that he’s probably showed some restraint by not walking in here going, ‘What are you, an idiot?’ I think that’s just part of who he is.”

THE 28 DAYS between the Big 12 championship loss and the Fiesta Bowl are invaluable to the Horned Frogs, whose run of 11 straight conference games this season ended with Duggan nearly unable to walk off the field on his own after the Kansas State game.

He takes so much punishment, teammates like Kendre Miller, the hard-nosed running back who ran for 1,342 yards and 17 touchdowns this season, say he inspires the rest of the players and makes them pop back up quickly, watching their QB bleed for them.

“We talk about emptying our tank. That’s one of the pillars of our program,” Dykes said. “Fill your tank up every week, get to the game, then empty it there. Max Duggan does that as well as anybody I’ve ever been around. He goes out there and gives everything he’s got on Saturday. He shows up Sunday morning and we kind of piece him back together with baling wire and Super Glue and he can barely walk and looks like he’s 75 years old. We’ll get to the game Saturday and he’ll be fine. That’s who he is, and to be able to do that for 13 consecutive weeks, that’s atypical.”

Dykes compares Duggan to a 1950s All-American, wearing a leather jacket and driving a 1957 Chevy to the prom. Coker complains that he’s too competitive and too good at Madden.

“He looks at it from a quarterback lens so he’s out here trying to dissect your coverages and dinking and dunking all the way down the field,” he said. “You’re like, ‘Dude, I’m not gonna play with you anymore.'”

Offensive lineman Wes Harris said he never has seen Duggan get rattled, nor has he seen him get cocky.

“That dude has every right to be like, ‘Watch this,'” he said. “He doesn’t say it. He does it.”

All the while, Morris has been taking notes.

“I’ve learned a lot … I’m happy for our teammates and I’m happy for Max, because he’s been through so much with his heart, then losing the job going into his senior year, and he didn’t flinch,” Morris said. “He was always the best teammate. Then the roles were reversed and I’m taking pride in being the best teammate that I can be and the best backup quarterback in the country.”

Duggan is the brains, heart and soul of the Horned Frogs, and if he can’t pull off one more wild upset, this will be the end of his road in Fort Worth, as he has already announced he’s entering the NFL draft.

“I don’t think you can measure what he means to your program because how do you put a measure or value on that?” Dykes said. “How can you measure how important that is?”

Jim Duggan, who is retired from coaching, knows Max is ready for his shot. And, he said, there’s precedent.

The last time Michigan played a bowl game in Arizona was in 2013 in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. The Wolverines lost to a Big 12 team (Kansas State) that was led by a quarterback named Jake Waters, who was coached by Duggan at Council Bluffs and wore No. 15, just like Max.

But win or lose, Dykes said on Thursday that Duggan’s legacy is already established, comparing his achievements to when Andy Dalton led TCU to a Rose Bowl win and a No. 2 finish in 2010 and “put TCU on the map.”

“Max is going to be on that Mount Rushmore of TCU guys,” Dykes said. “He certainly deserves to be. Here we are in the College Football Playoff; I think nobody anticipated any of us being here. I don’t think anybody was betting on Max Duggan to be a runner-up for the Heisman Trophy. I think there’s been a lot of things that occurred this year that were beyond people’s expectations.”

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